Political Hay

Mitt, Newt, and the Greater Good

A sober assessment of the good news in store.

By 11.23.11

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While watching Mitt Romney in action last night, I had a fugitive thought: he would be the perfect candidate for Vice President. I do not say that in a disparaging way. In the modern era, the Vice Presidency has become a job of substance and delegated authority. On more than a few occasions, it has been an important executive post; cf., Gore, Albert and Cheney, Richard. Can you think of anybody more likely than Romney to succeed in reorganizing an unwieldy Cabinet department, or in cutting back a bloated budget request? With Romney, there would not be a problem with the implementation of plan. He's a world-class manager. The problem would be with the plan itself.

Which frames the residual question about Romney as Presidential candidate this way: left to his own predilections, would Mitt Romney be a conservative President? The answer is almost surely no, he would not. As the acerbic Tory Benjamin Disraeli observed of the swells in the House of Commons: "sensible men are all of the same religion," by which he meant that establishmentarian elites tend to cluster around the received wisdom. The late Herman Kahn saw the same tendency from a different perspective. In his tangy way, Kahn claimed that the fundamental division between public men was between "those who care what the New York Times thinks about them and those who don't." Clearly, Romney cares. His entire career has been expended in the seeking and winning of approval from establishmentarian elites. Which prompts the sequential question: could Mitt Romney, supported closely by an engaged and vocal conservative movement, be a conservative president? In the current economic circumstance -- where the politics of reality is reasserting itself with a vengeance -- my hedged and hopeful answer would be, yes. Here's the hedge. If, after the election, conservatives choose to return to the plow and the hearth, my answer would be no, almost surely not.

Eye on Newt
What to make of Newt Gingrich? It may have been the estimable Jeffrey Lord who first remarked the similarities between Newt Gingrich and Winston Churchill. Suspend your disbelief. What Lord had in mind and what I find arresting were the surface similarities between the two portly statesmen -- the forensic gifts, the historical perspective, the long exposure to government benches back to front, the maturing life-experience with both savored victory and embittering defeat, the towering intellect. I was riding along smoothly with Lord until that last stop, where I felt compelled to get off the rhetorical train. Gingrich is verbally facile, to be sure, even pyrotechnical, but intellectually towering?

At a small dinner in Washington some years ago, several of us sat enthralled as Gingrich held forth well into the evening. He expressed admiration with unmodulated fervor for the writings of James Madison, the principal author of The Federalist Papers, Alvin Toffler, the intermittently intelligible futurist, and Arianna Huffington, the Greek-American ditz who would say almost anything in her climb to social prominence and economic opulence. Gingrich's undifferentiated enthusiasm represented for me the root problem of the autodidact: to the self-directed, all ideas appear to be created equal. (This is no knock on autodidacts, understand. Thomas Jefferson, alone in his library at Monticello, attained a superb education long after he had departed William & Mary. It's the rest of us that need guidance.) Is it unfair to entertain the possibility that a Gingrich Presidency might resemble in essential respects a Gingrich Speakership: lots of ideas in search of a premise, lots of projects in need of adult supervision, management by whim and driven by impulse -- followed by a swirl of charges, a cloud of confusion and, off at the end, an awkward exit?

And then again, when taking the measure of any Gingrich enterprise, one is obliged to count the number of personal items he'll be bringing on board. One can be pretty sure that they won't fit in the overhead storage bin. The two pieces of "baggage" that stick most conspicuously in memory, the one distant, the other just this month, were these. The first was when Speaker Gingrich lied about his adulterous affair just as he was impeaching Bill Clinton for lying about his adulterous affair. Not quite Churchillian, I think we can agree. The other oversized carry-on was Gingrich's explanation this month of a $300,000 fee he received from Freddie Mac. He was employed as an "historian," said the former Speaker, thus electrifying faculty lounges across the fruited plain. When subsequent news reports showed that the fee was at least $1.6 million, Gingrich retooled his explanation. He was not actually writing history and certainly not lobbying. He was providing "strategic advice." That formulation was not so much Churchillian as Clintonian. Whatever Gingrich thought he was selling, it's clear what Freddie Mac thought it was buying -- influence with conservatives who were thinking of closing the open bar at the mortgage-scam party. (One can only imagine the sweep of that seven-figure advice: "Gentlemen, I commend to you a genuinely new paradigm. According to projections calculated here at the Gingrich Polymathic Institute, we can bring the American Dream to every man, woman and child in this country by laying off the risk on the U.S. taxpayer, who can then lay it off on the Chinese government. Everybody with me so far?")

In at least one respect, Gingrich must be considered fully Churchillian. As the great biographer William Manchester wrote of Sir Winston at mid-career: "By now he had become adept at creating his own dramas."

Bottom line: If Gingrich is the nominee, would we, could we, support him? In a heartbeat. He's not a Retributionist (see below).

The End of the Beginning
The Presidential election has now been defined and, bringing particular satisfaction to those of us of the TAS persuasion, it has been defined by the broad mass of the citizenry and not by the increasingly derelict national media. The choice next year will be between the Disciplinarians on the one side and the Retributionists on the other. All of us-- right, left, and middle-- recognize that something serious and possibly epochal has gone wrong with our fragile Republic. Seen in its most favorable light, this problem is cyclical and soluble. In the gloom of twilight, it can seem fundamental and irreversible. (Watching the bond markets swoon, we expect the declinists to exhume any day now Sir Edward Grey's chestnut from 1914: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.")

The Disciplinarians, identified in the public mind with the Tea Party but spreading far beyond its ranks into both of the major parties, regard the problem as soluble and they have stepped forward to accost the decline and enlist in the restoration effort. They understand the core issue to be the breakdown of discipline in public finance. They seek to "take back" their government -- not in a lunge for operational power, but in the limited sense of calling the government to its original commitments.

The Retributionists, identified in the public mind with Occupy Wall Street but representing a broader swath of political alienation, are resigned to the prospect of national decline and have fixed their attention on the division of residual wealth. They believe that an unfair economic system has inevitably produced unfair results and they seek to redress these systemic wrongs through the brute power of government. They employ not just the language of class warfare. They advocate openly for the prosecution of class warfare.

Barack Obama, of course, is the champion of the Retributionists. He springs from the same activist roots as the Occupiers, was nurtured boy and man by the dependency establishment and speaks fluently the faux-street-language of the Affluent Left. He will make the Retributionist case as well as it can be made.

The good news is that the Disciplinarians will have a champion next year, too. He will have been tested in debate, vetted by the media, scrutinized in retail primaries and conservatized by a nominating process that has purged Retributionist tendencies comprehensively from the Grand Old Party.

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.